Art/Culture  •  In Convo with

In Convo with: David Teh

Curator Dr. David Teh discusses his new book Currencies of the Contemporary, the first scholarly study of current artistic practices in the kingdom since Apinan's landmark Modern Art in Thailand (1992).

August 17, 2017
Those working in contemporary art or those with an interest in it will know the name David Teh. He has been active in the scene since the early 2000s and is a friend and champion of Thai contemporary art and artists. David Teh is a curator and researcher based at the National University of Singapore. His latest project was curating a group show called TRANSMISSION at the Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok, 2014 and Misfits: Pages from a Loose-leaf Modernity at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2017. We sat down to talk about his highly anticipated book Currencies of the Contemporary just ahead of its launch in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
How did you come to write this book? Why Thai contemporary art?

Dr. Teh: Why not? Thailand has produced many interesting artists over the last few decades, and they've been prominent players on the international circuit, particularly since the surge of independent activity here in the 1990s. I started visiting in the early 2000s, but by the time I moved here in 2005, things had stagnated. The indie scene had run out of energy. The government was starting to invest in contemporary art but it was very tough for artists to make the work they wanted to make. So I found I could be useful as a curator. Although the book was written after I'd left in 2009, it's very much a product of that experience.

Apart from overseas success, several things stood out about Thai artists. They were working confidently in non-traditional media (e.g. installation, video, conceptual art) though these were not really supported by institutions or galleries. And there was often nothing very 'Thai' about their work, in contrast with the art of the '90s which was largely about identity. So here was a generation of artists who weren't interested in national branding, yet who knew their nationality would determine how their work was interpreted. I was intrigued by this tension and it became a central concern of the book.
Pratchaya Phinthong, Who Will Guard the Guards Themselves?, 2015. Lightbox, duratrans, and steel frame; 161 × 200 × 9 cm. Collection of Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Courtesy of the artist and gb agency, Paris.
According to your book, Thai Art is an exploration of how Thai modern art transitioned into legibly ‘contemporary’ by looking at its currencies both in Thai and global context, what are you trying to achieve with it?

DT: The idea of 'currencies' was a way to tell the story of this transition, to give contemporary art a history, without being confined to art history, or to the Thai context. Art historians like to keep art in its boxes - either it illustrates the life of an individual genius, or it belongs to a certain 'national school' or movement. But contemporary art has become very mobile and very diverse. In Thailand, a single institution (Silpakorn) dominated the field and set the artistic standards for almost half a century; but since the 1990s its monopoly has been challenged by other schools, while globalisation has given artists new kinds of opportunity. They're responding to a much broader set of influences and cultural cues. 

I use the term 'currency' to describe the values that artists claim by using certain images or symbols. Some currencies are more abstract, like moral or ideological values. For instance, what does it mean to focus on everyday life and ordinary folk rather than the traditional themes of 'fine art'? This shift in values was clear in Thai art in the '90s, but not just here - it was a worldwide trend. So the daily life of a rice farmer in Northern Thailand might be shown alongside that of a New York taxi driver, in an exhibition in Turkey. What is art doing, bringing these things together? What's the point of this exchange, and how do artists take advantage of it?

But I should stress that there are many currencies I haven't addressed. I focused on those that have made Thai art contemporary. International mobility was an obvious one, but some were more specific to Thailand, like the image of agriculture and 'sustainability,' and a kind of charisma that defines the relationship between leaders and followers. To anyone who follows Thai art, these themes are pretty clear, but they have different values on the global circuit - they're taken out of context and exchanged for other values. And this 'currency conversion' can be very revealing.

What did you find to be most challenging in putting together and writing this book?

DT: The shadow of the nation state. Since the 1990s, kwampenthai has become the main currency of Thai art. Just think of all the survey shows - Show Me Thai, Thai-tanic, Thai Trends, Thai Transience - and those are just from a single curator! The reasons for this, again, are both local and global. The reductive packaging of identity made things easy for foreign audiences, while at home, it appealed to bureaucrats for whom art was a vehicle for nationalism, especially after the 1997 financial crisis. But Thainess is an invention, not some mystical essence we carry in our blood - it's ideology, a discourse produced by certain institutions for certain purposes. Does 'Thai art' have to be about Thailand? Of course, this place has an impact on our work. But it's not the 1950s any more - contemporary art happens all over the world; artists are engaged with that wider world. To be so nationalistic looks more and more stupid every day.
Sakarin Krue-on, Terraced Rice Fields Art Project: Kassel, 2007. Earth, rice plants, and volunteers’ activity; 7,000 sq m. Installation view at Documenta 12, Bergpark, Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel, 2007. Courtesy of the artist. Below, portrait of David Teh.
What do you think of the direction of Thai contemporary art in the future, especially after Thailand’s royal transition into ‘sovereign insecurity’?

DT: I'm more worried about Thailand than I am about Thai art. This country's history and cultures are deep and layered - it will continue to generate interesting art. For me, the big question mark is the market. Thailand has never had a strong domestic market for contemporary art and hasn't been well served by galleries. There's a burst of new money and energy now, but how long will it last? This is why we need strong public institutions, with well trained staff; Thailand hasn't made those investments. A lot of money will be spent on three new biennials, but I'll be very surprised if any of them survives to a third edition. You can't develop good institutions without political stability and consensus, a degree of public unity - these are obviously things the country lacks at present.

There are numerous—countless even—Southeast Asian artists, but you claim that there has been ‘nothing much written about them,’ which seems true, especially with Thai art. Why do you think this is?

DT: There are two ways to answer this. One is anthropological: Southeast Asia's cultures are oral, not literary. Important stories and conversations are shared face to face, not written down; and a century of European-style education hasn't really changed that, though Art History does finally seem to be getting some traction in the region.

The second answer is about the relationship between visual art and writing. If you browse a big collection of Thai modern art catalogues, you won't learn much because the text they contain is honorific - it's a kind of celebration - it's not researched, it's not critical, it's not historical. The pictures supposedly attest to the wisdom or unique insight of the individual creator, their personal struggle to express universal truths. This is bullshit, and it adds no value to the art. The rest of the world abandoned that kind of mythology long ago. Good art writing tells us something about art's connection to society and the real world. It has to be historically informed. Until this is the norm, Thai art will be poorly represented in global art history. 

What are you working on now?

DT: I've just wrapped up a project in Berlin, an exhibition called Misfits: Pages from a Loose-leaf Modernity, which was about the 'canon': How do museums decide which artists were the most important, and which modern art should be collected and preserved? These are pivotal questions, as major institutions are trying to make their collections more 'global.' My current research is on the artist networks that emerged in Southeast Asia in the 1990s. Thailand was an important crossroads for this activity. I'm working on a book (with others) about Chiang Mai Social Installation, a festival that took place between 1992 and 1998.
Chitti Kasemkitvatana, Mo(nu)ment to the Third Chiang Mai Social Installation, 1995. Site-specific installation at Wat U-mong, Chiang Mai, during the Third Chiang Mai Social Installation, 1995. Chipboard, paint, rice flour. Courtesy of the artist.
Arin Rungjang, Art as a Place for Politics without Place, 2010. Temporary sculpture; found carpets from storeroom of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Installation view within “Imagine Peace,” Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.
“Currencies of the Contemporary” book launch and discussion with Dr. David Teh.

Bangkok: 5:30 pm - 7:30 pm, Friday, August 18, 2017
Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok, Thailand

Chiang Mai: 11 am - 1 pm, Sunday, August 20, 2017
MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The discussion will be held in English, with summaries in Thai
More information about the event here.